Book Review: Murder Most Fowl by Donna Andrews

With a Shakespearean twist, Murder Most Fowl is the next installment in Donna Andrews's long-running Meg Langslow mystery series.

Murder Most Fowl is the twenty-ninth Meg Langslow mystery and Donna Andrews’s winning formula keeps readers enthralled. It’s summertime and the living is anything but easy for Meg Langslow and her husband Michael, who is directing The Scottish Play (Macbeth, for the uninitiated, which is not to be named because “it’s considered bad luck to actually say it in a theater unless you’re actually performing or rehearsing the play”). Actors and their superstitions. Because of the in-fighting between the history, English, and drama departments at the local university, the cast and crew aren’t permitted to bunk at the college dorms. Instead, Meg is hosting everyone—be it in bedrooms, trailers, or tents in the yard. With all of this on her plate, she certainly didn’t need Josh and Jamie, her twin teenage boys, to announce they’d found a body in the woods but Meg has Debbie Ann, the police department dispatcher, on speed dial. The calvary arrives quickly with Meg’s dad close on their heels, plus someone Meg does not want to film the crime scene, as she explains to Henry Burke, Chief of the Caerphilly Police Department.

“The guy with Dad is a documentary filmmaker and an avid blogger,” I said quietly. “Also a jerk with no concept of privacy or boundaries. So unless you want pictures of your crime scene popping up all over the Web—”

 

“His name?”

 

“Damien Goodwin,” I said.

 

The chief strode a few paces toward the approaching figures. 

 

“Mr. Goodwin! Stay where you are!”

An obstreperous Damien Goodwin protests vigorously, shouting that they have no right to take his camera. Meg rescinds Goodwin’s rights to videotape on her property and he finally subsides. Readers come away from Donna Andrews’s stories with a treasure load of extraneous and fascinating details. Take the dead hand reaching up through the leaves of the forest. Meg’s dad leans over the body and snaps off one of the fingers. It’s a delightful walk in the woods for Meg’s beaming father.

“It’s a fungus.” He ambled back in our direction. “Xylaria polymorpha. Commonly known as ‘dead-man’s-toes.’ Commonly known as ‘dead-man’s-fingers,’ or sometimes ‘dead-man’s-toes.’ So called because that’s often what they look like. I have to say, though, I’ve never seen a more lifelike example.”

 

He handed the pseudo finger to the chief, who didn’t exactly flinch—but you could tell he found it a lot less charming than Dad did.

So no dead body, which disappoints Meg’s blood-thirsty twins. However, Meg informs the chief that there are many lesser crimes being committed. Here’s an incomplete list: sheep stealing by hapless medieval reenactors at what they call Camp Birnam, rampant vandalism including painting bloody footsteps on Meg’s front walk, trashing her library by tossing hundreds of books off the shelves, and decorating her walls with graffiti of the racial epithets variety. Meg is concerned that the destructive activities are intensifying. 

“So far no one’s been hurt by anything the vandal has done,” I said. “And apart from the graffiti, there’s been very little property damage. But it feels menacing, as if whoever is doing it was angry. And getting angrier.”

Everyone, including the sheep-stealing reenactors, is invited to a rough cut of Damien Goodwin’s documentary. The venue is the Langslow library. Watching it is an unpleasant experience for everyone in the audience since Damien deftly embarrasses or offends almost everyone. One member of the audience has had quite enough of Damien’s stealthy, brutal masterpiece-in-making. Celia Rivers, the Lady Macbeth of the production, forces a physical halt to the video-streaming, possibly since Damien presents her as a modern-day Wicked Witch of the West.

“Enough!” Celia leaped out of her seat, strode forward, and jerked the TV’s plug out of the electrical outlet. “This is not okay. I am not sitting still for this.” With each “not” she aimed a short, sharp kick at the stand on which the TV was sitting.

 

“No, wait—” Goodwin scrambled forward and dropped to his knees by the electrical outlet and began fumbling for the plug. Bad idea—for a second, I thought Celia was going to aim a kick at him. But instead, she took a step or two toward the laptop from which Goodwin had been streaming his footage. She picked it up, whacked it against the library table a couple of times, then threw it onto the floor and stomped on it, hard.

 

“What the hell—” Goodwin shouted.

Indeed. Tech-savvy readers know that where’s there’s a laptop, there’s usually a backup and someone makes sure to eradicate all traces of Goodwin’s nascent documentary. Meg wakes up to a trashed trailer (where Goodwin had been staying) and a dead director. His computer equipment is pulverized. However, Meg’s nephew Kevin, currently living in her basement (and paying rent—he’s no layabout!), is a tech guru and if anyone can ferret out Goodwin’s secrets and get a clue as to his killer, Kevin’s the guy.

Murder Most Fowl has a traditional cozy framework with a closed circle of suspects, many of whom have a reason to hate the victim. That too is typical—an unpopular murder victim. Ko-Ko from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado might have been referencing Damien Goodwin.

As some day it may happen that a victim must be found

 

I’ve got a little list – I’ve got a little list

 

Of society offenders who might well be underground

 

And who never would be missed – who never would be missed

Again, in keeping with a cozy mystery, blood and gore are pretty much offside. What makes Meg Langslow’s world so enticing is her brilliant and ever-expanding team of experts and hands-on helpers. It’s almost fantastical, reading about a madcap world that frequently teeters on the edge of mayhem, as we saw in The Gift of the Magpie

Good luck guessing the killer because Donna Andrews is masterful at strewing clues and red herrings. What next for the murder-ridden town of Caerphilly? I’m looking forward to a return visit.

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